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The history of the Isle of Dogs often produces strange and unusual stories, however very few people would expect the Island to be the site of first Anglican Benedictine community of monks at the end of the 19th century.
The charismatic leader behind the “Monks of Cubitt Town” was a young Anglican medical student named Benjamin Fearnley Carlyle whose interest in monastic life was part of a wider movement which looked to return to the simple life as an antidote to the problems of the industrialised modern world. Carlyle or Brother Aelred as he called himself believed you could lead a contemplative life but also provide service, helping the poor.
The Priory (many thanks to Mick at islandhistory.wordpress.com for sending photo)
In 1896 he was invited to come and live with some of his followers at a large house at 45 Glengall Road which became known as the Priory. Within a few months the house was fitted out with a chapel, library and club room. Over the next two years Brother Aelred and his followers began to live according to Benedictine rules with help and support from the local clergy especially Reverend D. G. Cowan of St John’s on the Isle of Dogs. Although there is little evidence to exactly what the Brothers did, the Booth Poverty survey noted that not everyone welcomed their presence, apparently there was an article in The Cubitt Town Protestant Banner, a parish magazine April 1897 which includes an article criticising the work of the Cubitt Town monks.
Although they were living the lives of monks, they were not officially sanctioned as such by church. At the end of 1897, Brother Aelred went to see the local vicar, Rev Cowans and told him that he thought his pastoral work was preventing him from living a Benedictine life and he wanted a quieter life in the country. He also wanted official recognition for the Anglican Benedictine monks. Rev Cowan wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask him to see Brother Aelred which he did in 1898, the outcome of the meeting was the Archbishop sanctioned for him to live according to Benedictine Rule.
This move was not without its controversy, although it was recognised that the revival of Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods in the 19th century may be good for the church, there was considerable concern that the new communities would be outside the authority of the church itself.
Over the next few years the community went from place to place until they found a more permanent home in Cadley Island in Wales in 1906. In 1913 the uneasy alliance between the community and the Anglican authorities come to open rebellion when almost the entire community converted to Catholicism.
Father Aelred was ordained as Benedictine Abbot of Caldey in 1914, where he stayed before resigning in 1921 and moving to Canada to undertake missionary work in Canada for the next 30 years. The other monks in 1928 went to Prinknash Park where they still have a community.
In 1951, Aelred returned to England, and in 1953 he was allowed to renew his monastic vows at Prinknash Abbey.
When Aelred died in 1955, he was once again a full member of the community he had founded on the Isle of Dogs sixty years earlier.
In the late 19th century, the Isle of Dogs was often visited by a number of religious organisations who often set up missions to work with the poor. Although the Isle of Dogs had its poor areas it did not have the extreme social conditions of some of the other parts of the East End. Therefore it was not a surprise that the Monks of Cubitt Town was not welcomed with open arms by the local population.
The history of Brother Aelred perhaps suggests he was more interested in the romantic image of a religious community rather than reality of inner city communities, however the Monks of Cubitt Town did create their own piece of religious history on the Island by founding the first Anglican Benedictine community of monks.